Brian O’Leary reports how Spanish Socialists resisted the far right but further elections seem likely in a stalemate result
Defying all polling predictions, the July election results in Spain left the Right shocked but the Left and regional nationalists visibly relieved. With 171 seats each, neither the Left coalition parties nor the Right has enough to straightforwardly form a new Government. The Catalan right of centre Junts party holds the critical parliamentary votes to decide the investiture. Any cobbled together majority is unlikely to be viable for long; so sooner or later another election is probably on the cards.
The election itself was critical for progressive forces in Spain and defeat would have added to the populist Right wave advancing generally across Europe. For Spain this snap poll was called by Socialist PM Sanchez following the disastrous results of both his party (PSOE) and his radical left coalition partner (IU) in the March regional and local elections. Turnout had been very low from their base. The winners in too many places were the conservative party (PP) and the extreme right (Vox). These two formed coalitions in a whole number of localities, and even previous Left strongholds. Unsurprisingly they immediately began to roll back the progressive gains made by the Left. The fear was that this outcome would translate into an even bigger political disaster later this year when a general election had to be called, seriously reversing the country socially. Fortunately, the timing of this snap election was a gamble that has so far paid off.
Although the PP was a neoliberal party of low taxes, spending and deregulation it needed Vox to govern. It was therefore willing to get into bed with a party that is blatantly nativist, anti-immigrant and peddles ‘the great replacement’ theories, advocates the banning of separatist parties and reversing regional autonomy to uphold the of ‘unity of Spain’, is natalist and aggressively anti-feminist and LGBTQ+, a climate denier, a denier of Francoist history by promising to repeal the ‘historical memory’ law etc. Therefore looking over its shoulder, the PP has peddled its own conspiracy nonsenses accusing the Coalition government of collaborating with ex-Basque terrorists, threatening the constitutional integrity of Spain with its deals with Catalan parties, being soft on crime by releasing rapists from prison, indulging again in concocted personal smear tactics and dubbing the Coalition as “Sanchismo” and autocratic.
With significant help from the media the Right had already been quite successful in conducting cultural wars and spreading disinformation, so was already able to set much of the election agenda. Sanchez’s campaign was therefore mainly defensive, warning that the Right aimed for a warmed up Francoism. The radical Left managed to stop their infighting and reformed as Sumar under the leadership of Yolanda Diaz. She reminded voters of the achievements of the government, which included a generous Covid furlough scheme, womens’ and LGBTQ+ rights, extended protections for casual workers and trade unions, minimum wage and pension increases and more recent cost of living protections including rent controls. It was presented in the common sense language of fairness, security and protection and promised more in the future. Finally, along with Sanchez’s very vocal ant-fascist warnings, the campaign finally struck a chord as the Left, particularly the PSOE, won the lion’s share of lower income groups’ votes.
If the Left is to break the political stalemate in the longer term it obviously faces many challenges.
There is a need to reinvigorate social movements and trade union activity. They have particularly languished post pandemic but will be a necessary counterweight to Sanchez’s tendency to triangulate with the right of his party and employer groups. Advancing the Left’s arguments in communities and workplaces cannot just rely on parliament.
Even if, so far Spain has fared economically better than most EU countries in the ongoing stagflation, delivering the Left’s message will be made more difficult if the EU re-imposes its austerity inducing fiscal rules in 2024. As to how the EU could be reformed or whether it is reformable has not even really been discussed on the Left.
Then there is the need for constitutional changes to tackle powerful conservative institutional and administrative structures that operate beyond democratic control. The constitutional court, for instance, repeatedly blocks progress on the national question within Spain.
Finally, the election outcome shows it is a mistake for Social Democracy to believe it can go it alone without the radical Left against the ambitions and capacities of the Right. Sanchez initially tried this following the first election in 2019 before being forced to rethink, while Costa in Portugal currently seems to be suffering the consequences of doing the same. Unfortunately this lesson is too late for Starmerism and the Labour Party.